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Jesus, the first stand-up comic

Son’s message shows Jesus knew how to deliver a punchline

By Gail Strange | Presbyterian News Service | Photos by Rich Copley

Worship at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville on Jan. 29, 2020, included the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson (left), music leader; the Rev. Samuel Son, preacher; and the Rev. Alexandra Zareth.

LOUISVILLE — Morning worship at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville this week opened with a powerful beat of the djembe, a West African drum, played by the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Self-Development of People ministry for the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA).

The Rev. Samuel Son, the PMA’s manager of diversity and reconciliation, was the preacher for the service on Wednesday morning. Drawing on Luke 13:10–17 — Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for 18 years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight… — Son titled his message “Jesus, the First Stand-Up Comic.”

“Jesus as a stand-up comedian,” said Son. “I know what you’re thinking — that’s sacrilegious! Is it sacrilegious or do we not know what comedy is? Jesus had a way of telling truth that made people laugh. Maybe we think it’s sacrilegious to put Christ and comedy in the same sentence because we have the wrong notion of comedy and of Christ,” he said.

“We assume holiness is seriousness. The holier you are, the more constipated you should look. But is that biblical? Or is that, like most traditions, our cultures value, posing as absolutes?”

Son said that when comedian Dave Chappelle gave an acceptance speech for the 2019 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Chappelle didn’t want to talk about himself but instead discussed the art form of stand-up comedy. “There’s something true about this genre,” Chappelle had said.

“When I say Jesus was a stand-up comedian, I mean Jesus had a way of being truthful, a way of speaking truth that made some laugh and some angry,” said Son.

Noting that Chappelle may be too controversial, and some may not appreciate a quote from the comedian, Son referred to Meister Eckhart, a German theologian, philosopher and mystic.

The Rev. Samuel Son delivered the sermon “Jesus, the First Stand-Up Comic.”

Saying, “how about Meister Eckhart, can’t go wrong with a Meister,” Son then quoted Eckhart: “My Lord told me a joke and seeing him laugh had done more for me than any Scripture I will ever read.”

“There is much evidence that Jesus was a comedian, speaking truth and making people happy and some angry. And, in today’s reading, you see things that would only happen in a comedy show,” Son said.

“Jesus has the stage alone, there are hecklers, and Jesus lays a mean burn on the hecklers. He does it with a joke, and the crowd laughs, and the laugh empowers,” Son said.

Son pointed out that in the Scripture you see Jesus interacting with the crowd and that a true comedian interacts with the crowd. Son also said that comedy makes all things public and there’s power in making things public. “Hiding often means there is shame and fear, and there’s shame and fear because there’s power that oppresses,” said Son.

“Here’s a woman who has been crippled for 18 years. People have shunned her. She has internalized that rejection,” he said. “She lives her life in the shadows; she hears this great storyteller; he makes her laugh; he makes her believe the possibility that maybe God hasn’t shunned her,” he said.

Son added that Jesus calls the woman out into public not to shame her, but to remove her shame. “Now the leaders say that Jesus could have waited until Sunday, which is true, and could have done it privately and not bring attention,” said Son. “Jesus’ point was not just the miracle but to dismantle the way people oppress through the division of acceptable and unacceptable, the public and shameful. Preachers go up to the pulpit and there are clear expectations of what preachers can say and how the congregants should behave. In comedy, everything is material. Comedy overcomes shame through laughter, but that overcoming of shame is a liberation from oppression.”

Son said that like many comedians, Jesus addresses the hecklers. “Hecklers seem to be a staple of comedy and that’s because in comedy, someone is getting made fun of, and not everyone can take a joke, especially those in power, those who need seriousness to maintain their authority,” he said.

“And Jesus calls them out! Because great comedians address hecklers too! And he calls them out with a name, calling, ‘You hypocrites!’ ”

“A comedian has two tools; one is the right words,” he said. “The right word is the most honest and truthful word. The humor is not in exaggerating but exposing the exaggeration in the situation. The second tool is the punchline. The punchline is the surprise. In a punchline there is always a set-up.

“On Sabbath you take care of your ox and donkey by giving it water, but you won’t take care of a daughter of Abraham.

“A joke is funny not because it exaggerates but because it exposes the exaggeration of lies. A joke is funny not because it makes up hilarious pairings but because it exposes the contradictions of the current system. These people in power thought it was really OK to care for donkeys but not for a human person. And it takes a comedian to point out that contradiction.

“A punchline works when it’s unexpected. And it gives you a new way of seeing things. In a way, a punchline is always a revelation.

“There’s the set-up. And there’s the punchline. And everyone knows a punchline is coming, but still the punchline surprises you. A great comedian delivers great punchlines. You see how great Jesus is with his punchlines in his parables.

Son said that “the Matthew 25 parable is a great punchline, but Jesus’ greatest punchline was not delivered by words but by his life. This punchline works because Jesus himself was the punchline! The punchline comes three days later when Jesus rose from the dead and sorrows turned to laughter.”

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